It’s 80°F at 7pm on this August Saturday in front of the Hotel de Ville in Paris. Thousands of people are sardined into the walled-off square while outside the barricades tourists watch through their phones. We are facing a stage framed by rainbow flags, drinking beer and clinking medals and straining to see the person on the stage.
Her name is Joanie Evans. She is the co-president of the Federation of Gay Games (FGG). Her voice is sure and confident as she leans into the microphone and says, “I’ve made it my personal mission to increase women’s participation in the Gay Games to 50%.” In Paris, the goal was 30%, and I’m pretty sure they fell short (though I can’t find official statistics).
Joanie is a Black woman. All around me are cis men, many of them white. I wonder what it’s like for her in the rooms where all the planning and coordination happens for the Games. How many women are there? How many trans folks? How many people of color? How hard does she have to fight to be heard?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. In my personal experience, LGBTQIA+ folks tend to be more aware of how important it is to prioritize inclusion and respect, which begins with listening and holding space, than most cis-het (white) people. But not always. Our community is sprawling, and there is plenty of exclusion going on. Transphobia and racism is rampant among The Gays, too.
My heart longs for Joanie’s mission to become a reality (and by women’s participation, I mean womxn’s/femmes/NB/GNC participation; I like to think she mean that too). As a first-time participant in the Games, I didn’t know what to expect, but there were precious few athletes who weren’t cis men. I met several amazing queer women and a few trans/GNC folks, and to be clear, it’s empowering and joyful as hell to compete alongside my fellow LGBTQIA+ athletes. Sport can be a hugely healing, confidence-boosting and community-building outlet for everyone – and I would argue this can be especially true for LGBTQIA+ people. We who have so often and in millions of subtle ways been told that our bodies are wrong, that we don’t belong. In sport, we can use them to do amazing things.
The FGG does make an effort to bring athletes who would otherwise not have access to the Games to compete; the Paris Games awarded 500 scholarships, many to people from countries where they cannot openly participate in sport as their whole selves. Paris boasted one of the largest Games ever with 10,000 participants from 91 countries.
But it’s painfully obvious that the event is heavily skewed toward gay men. It prioritizes all-night parties over the actual sporting events in its marketing and execution. To me, that signals that the FGG is more interested in catering to the stereotypical Gay, i.e. the culture of clubs, alcohol and sex. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with connecting in that way. Nighttime plays an important role in queer history, with secrecy being vital for survival. But the cruising culture that is so closely entwined with gay nightlife is very much the domain of gay men. The Gay Games claim to be for everyone, and they also claim to be a sporting event. So why aren’t those aspects stressed more? I know I’m not the only person who balked at the fact that the Ladies Night party – the only one any of the non-cis men I talked to had much interest in – started at 11:00pm, and the races after 9:30am (far too late to be starting a race on a hot summer day in Paris). I won’t even get into the problem of cis-normative language in the title “Ladies Night” and ubiquitous everywhere. That’s an essay for another day.
To be “queer and ___” is to live a life of constant questioning. I am queer and an athlete. How can queer spaces and athletic spaces compliment each other, and how do they oppose each other? How does being trans or NB/GNC and an athlete do the same? I spend so much time asking myself these things.
I am happy this event exists, especially because elite international athletics is pretty shitty toward anyone outside gender norms especially. And it’s because I love the event that I want it to be better. How can the Games keep its celebratory nature while also taking itself more seriously as a political statement and a place for all kinds of athletes, including those who do not wish to stay up all night in a sea of cis gays?
I don’t know if or how the FGG has experimented with their programming in the past. All I know is that the womxn I met had a good time, but did not have as good a time as the men.
I also wonder how much the participants with scholarships were able to do outside of their events – the parties and other side-events (even some of the spectating opportunities) cost extra. From a purely economic perspective, it makes sense that cis men would be the most represented demographic at any event that costs money. LGBTQIA+people tend to be less wealthy across the board due to workplace, education and resource-access discrimination. Homeless youth, in the US at least, are overwhelmingly LGBTQIA+, and of those, trans kids are disproportionately represented. So I’m glad there are scholarships, but who in our family never even get to pursue a sport?
On this steamy Paris night, when the Place d’Hotel de Ville is closed to the public in order to celebrate the Gay Games closing ceremony, Joanie seems to be asking those questions when she stands strong and proud in front of 10,000 athletic queers and proclaims a personal mission.
The next Games will be in Hong Kong, and rumors are already circulating that China will give it the ax. I don’t think that will happen specifically because of the money the Games will bring, but is that money a means to an end? Can we ever reach full inclusion when capitalism is a dominating global force?
This is the shit that keeps me up at night (well, that in the constant anxiety about injury and a host of other things – my brain is really fun!). Which, in turn, is why I run. It calms my frenetic mind and tense body, puts me somewhere physical to relieve my mental gymnastics for a little while. Everyone can benefit from that relief, especially LGBTQIA+ people. Hopefully, the space it creates – the reminder of being in a body and the power that comes with it – helps us to keep pushing and growing.